Thursday, August 13, 2009

When Pigs Fly

There is a serious element to a lot of the idle talk about swine flu. The severity of the disease was overestimated, and press reports exaggerated. However, given the available information and our understanding of influenza strains, health authorities responded rationally and within reason all over the world. (With some notable exceptions.) That said, the flu could mutate, and even cases of seasonal flu can prove fatal to vulnerable populations. The initial panic and misinformation about the disease may have lead to a world that is a little more complacent and a little more skeptical of infectious threats, however credible. This has opened the door to an insidious cynical views of swine flu and government health authorities worldwide. This past week a few stories called to my attention some of the more outlandish and dangerous claims about the disease.

Our affliction is international, and we begin in Kuala Lampur with a certain “Dr.” V.M. Palaniappan and his claims. He’s a doctor of ecology, so I’m calling him Mr. in the context of medical advice, which is what journalists should do when quoting someone outside their field of proven expertise. The link above goes to his blog, which I don’t recommend visiting unless you have an appetite for the crazy. According to the article,

“Avoiding masturbation and homosexual activities are among preventive measures one could take against Influenza A (H1N1), according to an eminent practitioner of complimentary therapy.

Dr. V. M. Palaniappan said that such activities caused the body to develop friction heat which in turn, produced acid and made the body hyperacidised.
"Thus, the body becomes an easy target for H1N1 infection," he told Bernama, emphasising however, that normal sexual union between members of the opposite sex was absolutely safe.”

I make no claims to an expert understanding of human immunity, however the claims here are preposterous when subjected to any logic. “Friction heat” produces acid? That alone is a highly suspect claim. If he had argued that physical exertion lead to lactic acid buildup in the muscles, it would at least make sense. However he is arguing that heat leads to increased acidity of the body (which I can only read as bloodstream). I can tell you right now that unless you’re boiling water off of a system, raising the temperature is unlikely to affect the pH significantly. Argonne National Laboratories has some good information on pH and heat in general terms. This is not to say that temperature can’t effect pH and systems in equilibrium, but such changes tend to be very small, and humans have regulatory systems in place to stabilize both blood pH and body temperature.

When Mr. Palaniappan claims that “normal sexual union between members of the opposite sex” is not harmful, I’m lead to assume that he’s arguing that there is no “friction heat” produced in straight sex. Reading this, you have to speculate a little on whether Palaniappan can speak from any experience in this field. But wait! There’s more crazy!

“Dr Palaniappan recommends coconut water, which is alkaline, and therefore could be used as a herbal medicine for the prevention of H1N1.
For example, he said, those who felt feverish and developed a burning sensation while attending to a call of nature because of extreme acidity, could neutralise it by drinking coconut water, twice a day, for three days.”

Really? What if I drink it three times a day, for two days? Will I OD? Also, coconut juice is acidic, you ignorant jackass, most fruit juices are. It’s not alkaline* unless it happens to be opposite day over there in Southeast Asia. I don’t know about Palaniappan, but I have a digestive system, so eating or drinking usually means food and drink don’t get dumped directly into my bloodstream. They spend a little time in this organ (maybe you’ve heard of it) called the “stomach”. I’m not a “doctor”, but I’m pretty sure that that’s pretty much how it works. The stomach is full of this glorious reagent common to industrial settings and labs all over the world: Hydrochloric acid. At a pH of about 2, I wouldn’t say that’s terribly dilute either. Maybe he would know this if he paid attention in medical school. Oh wait, that’s right, he never attended medical school.

A short hop and a skip away, from the Indian subcontinent we have this video, which I would have embedded if it didn't obnoxiously start up as soon as you load the blog into your browser (you’re welcome). I’m already suffering from crackpot overdose after analyzing Mr. Palaniappan’s claims, so I’m going to have to be briefer with this clown. According to our yogi (who apparently has some really cool merch!) people with strong immune systems cannot get swine flu. Isn’t it cute when ignorant morons use modern scientific terminology without actually being cognizant of what they’re talking about. The immune system can’t protect you from viral threats your body hasn’t already been exposed to, and no amount good health will help you if manage to get enough viral particles into your system. Actually, people with strong immune system are more susceptible to the effects of swine flu. The reporter also added that the Yogi advised people to wear face masks in crowded spaces. Putting aside for the moment problems with face masks (though I wouldn’t discount their utility completely) the Yogi obviously doesn’t understand germ theory, so what does he think face masks are going to do? I’m just trying to understand his thinking here.

Finally we arrive home (well, home for me anyway) here in the good ole US of A. What is it this time? Crystal healing? Alternative therapies “they” don’t want you to know about? Nope, it’s our old friends, the nitwits over at the National Vaccine [mis]Information Center. The anti-vaxers are at it again. I’ll bet these are the same people who take their dogs to the beach and don’t clean up after them, ruining it for the rest of us. Really their philosophy thus far has been, “Herd immunity doesn’t exist, and we’re going to do whatever the fuck we want.” But, I’m griping, let’s get to the video of Barbara Loe Fisher:

There’s a lot here to discuss, and this is made harder by the fact that she doesn’t really say anything. Mostly it’s a lot of scary noise about a swine flu vaccine. Note she emphasizes that the vaccines are experimental. She’s very fond of the word, but if you go to the NVIC website, it’s clear that they’re also against vaccines that aren’t experimental. I don’t like giving these people link love when unnecessary, so you’ll have to find it yourself. WebMD (a site with real doctors!) has some accurate information about why testing is being fast tracked and given to children first. It’s not being “tested” on children as Fisher so blatantly mischaracterized it. It’s the lifeboat principle, in this case, pregnant women and children first. Also, and this is important, this flu vaccine is not significantly different in design from seasonal flu vaccines. The technology has been tested numerous times in general principle, though I don’t expect anyone from the NVIC to understand anything about that.

She also quotes a number of disorders and statistics about children with various conditions, and leaves it hanging in the air. These figures are meaningless if she can’t say anything about a causal relationship between them and vaccines, or between them and alleged “vaccine damage.” The whole video is about scaring people, not informing them. She talks about “well informed choices” and while I’m all in favor of giving people the full rundown of information, the simple fact of the matter is that at the end of the day, medical professionals know better. Otherwise we wouldn’t have doctors at all.

Well, it’s been quite the roundup of the ignorant, the clueless, and the dangerously stupid. Of all of the bullshit peddlers, I think the people from the NVIC spout the most dangerous line of nonsense. At least the other two maniacs didn’t exactly discount modern medicine completely. NVIC is actively promoting that we put children at risk, with their line of crap and I’m not particularly tickled about it. If there is in fact a cure for swine flu, the vaccine will be our best bet, and if these ignorance damaged half-wits have there way, it’s a cure that will be rendered useless by their unjustified paranoia. This is where ignorance hurts us all.

*Updated to add: I forgot to mention that “alkaline” is not usually a term applied to this sort of thing to mean “basic”. Alkalis are technically only soluble bases with OH- groups. It’s interchangeable in common English, but there is in fact a distinction. I really need to do a post on acid-base chemistry.


  1. The man is clearly a kook, but I am not sure coconut juice is acidic. Googling seems to uncover a fair number of websites which list it as alkaline. Should be very easy to check with a pH paper dip.

    Also, considering that Mr. P is correct about heat generated in homosexual sex (although he cites an egregiously wrong reason) and incorrect about heat generated in heterosexual sex, one does not have to guess which sex he probably has experience with.

  2. I am not sure coconut juice is acidic. Googling seems to uncover a fair number of websites which list it as alkaline.

    Huh, really? What search terms are you using? For "coconut milk pH" and "coconut juice pH" I get results listing it as low-acid in range between 4.1 at the least and 7 at the most.

    The wiki indicates that coconut juice has some nitrogen in it (I don't know in what form) but there is a higher percentage of phosphoric acid. As you say, a litmus test could resolve this easily. I guess we have to wait for fresh coconuts to be in season, since the canned stuff is probably mixed in with some preservatives.

  3. I wouldn't be surprised if the canned stuff is acidic. Also, coconut juice easily and quickly ferments, so I would think the pH of fresh and/or canned/stale coconut juice might significantly differ.

  4. My understanding is that while fruits and vegetables are typically acidic, their ash is alkaline. So that once you are done digesting them, your urine becomes more alkaline - an issue when treating kidney stones.

  5. My understanding is that while fruits and vegetables are typically acidic, their ash is alkaline. So that once you are done digesting them, your urine becomes more alkaline - an issue when treating kidney stones.

  6. My understanding is that while fruits and vegetables are typically acidic, their ash is alkaline. So that once you are done digesting them, your urine becomes more alkaline - an issue when treating kidney stones.


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